Finding your passion
Some time in the decade just gone I went to university to do Music and Sound Recording (Tonmeister). I chose this course because I loved to make music, and I loved technology. I also happened to be doing the right A levels (Maths, Physics and Music). The Tonmeister course was a great mix of music theory and practice, audio theory and recording practice. We recorded through a Neve V series desk onto 2 inch multi-track tape, as well as through a Sony OXF-R3 into ProTools. It was an audio geek’s dream.
But for the entire first year of the course, you weren’t allowed to play with the toys. The only way to get access was to assist a student in the second or final years (the third year was spent on placement). For the period of the recording session, you’d be their bitch. You’d set up mics, plug in cables, move amps about, go and get pizza – whatever was needed basically. Studio time was at a premium, so these sessions were often all-night affairs (with lectures at 9 the next morning).
I had a friend – let’s call him Chris – who did a lot of assisting in the first year. He’d hang out with the final years, and got first dibs on most of the assisting opportunities. He spent more time in the studios than most of the second or final years, and often knew more about the kit than the students he was assisting. If you needed help getting the lexicon reverb unit to output in stereo, you’d ask Chris. We were in the same halls of residence, so I’d often see him coming in early in the morning after an all-night session, or running back to his room to get his pop shield, or another SM57, or whatever.
When he wasn’t assisting, he was listening to music. He’d listen in great detail to recordings, electronic, rock and classical, and analyse the recording on his pro headphones. He’d listen to the compression, the EQ, the reverb. He listened for bad edits and nice mixes. Endlessly analysing, working out what he liked, and what he didn’t like. And when he wasn’t listening, he was reading. He’d read and read books and magazines about recording, mixing and mastering.
Then, when it came to the second year, suddenly he was able to record stuff himself. He didn’t have to put the mics in the wrong place where he was told to; he could put them in the perfect place where it would sound just right, where you’d get the perfect balance of snap and pow and bang. He spent as much time recording as he could. We only had a fixed amount of studio time per semester, so when he didn’t have his own session he’d assist other second years, or he’d just hang out in the studio.
For the placement year, only one place would do – Abbey Road. So he went there for the year, and worked all the hours they threw at him. Then came the final year, and again, he spent all his free time recording. He ended up getting a first-class degree, and then went back to Abbey Road. These days I open up Sigur Růs albums and see his name on the inside.
Chris had the passion for recording, and audio. I didn’t. I enjoyed the course, I loved recording, had great fun in the studios. But I wasn’t passionate. I didn’t spend my spare time reading about it and listening to music. I didn’t spend all my time in the studios. And I wasn’t great at recording. I wasn’t bad – I could hook up some mics, put them in the right place, get the levels right; but I couldn’t listen to a mix and hear that the top snare mic was two inches too close to the rim, and the drum overheads weren’t balanced properly.
The best bits for me were the digital signal processing modules, where we’d mess about with digital audio in Matlab, Csound and Max/MSP. I bought Matlab, and spent hours and hours of my free time making a random music generator. I wanted to make digital audio plugins to destroy music and put it back into an unrecognisable (but awesome) state. But if I was going to do that, I’d have to learn to program, and that would be too difficult. I’d heard about this programming language called C++, and to make audio plugins you had to know C++. I wanted to make audio plugins with Matlab, because C++ was a scary proper programming language, whereas Matlab was this nice fun environment that happened to input and output audio. Unfortunately it wasn’t very good for making high-performance audio plugins.
Anyway, skip forward a year or so, and I’ve left the world of audio behind and have found myself working in publishing. On a rainy holiday, where all we had to do was read newspapers, I read a story in the Technology Guardian about how the UK computer games industry was doing terribly. One line caught my eye:
It’s better for us to go to somewhere like Imperial College and employ someone who has just done a computer science degree and knows how to program in C++.
I hadn’t done a computer science degree, but I thought to myself – I can learn C++! Why not? I could be a game developer! The moment I got home, I downloaded a C++ IDE, found some tutorials, and started teaching myself C++. I just coded and coded, using the internet as my teacher. Then I bought a beginner C++ book, read it cover to cover in no time, and then re-read it, understanding it that little better. I bought the O’Reilly C++ Pocket Reference and took it on holiday, spending the whole time learning the difference between public, protected and private, and the syntax for operator overloading. I drove my girlfriend crazy by watching TV with her with my laptop on my lap, tapping away remaking tetris with Pixeltoaster. I wrestled with obscure syntax, but Stack Overflow came to the rescue (I was actually really lucky that Stack Overflow went public around the time that I started programming).
At one point I questioned whether I was doing the right thing by learning C++ as my first programming language. I got an answer that has stayed with me ever since (a quote from Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture):
Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show you how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who donít want something bad enough. They are there to keep out the other people.
So, it took time, but eventually I found my passion. Some are like Chris, and find it when they’re still a teenager, which is great. Others take longer. You just need to be receptive. Don’t assume that there’s anything you can’t do, just because you haven’t tried it. There’s something out there in the world that you’ll discover and you’ll find it hard to imagine your life without it. It’s like a soulmate you get paid to spend time with.
So, what’s the point of all this? I guess what I’m saying is don’t waste your life doing something you’re not passionate about, but be on the lookout for what it is that really fires you up. Because it’s out there, and it’s waiting for you to find it. You may have already ignored some clues as to what it is. Like all good things worth searching for, you won’t find it when you’re looking. But at the same time, you won’t find it if you’re closed to the idea of ever finding it. Keep your eyes wide and your mind open.